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Where's The ... Milk?

Hoping To Entice More Tenants, A Developer Finances A Grocery Store

By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

February 24, 2008

The developers hope it will be the food market that changes the downtown market. n It's admittedly been slow going getting the right businesses into downtown's newly built retail spaces. Most of developer Lawrence R. Gottesdiener's retail space below and around his Hartford 21 luxury apartment tower is still vacant, but for a gym and a wine shop. n But Gottesdiener has what might otherwise seem a modest goal for 2008 to open his self-financed grocery store on the ground level of Hartford 21.

"Once the market opens, it changes the environment, it improves the environment for additional retail that supports the 24-hour city," said Chuck Coursey, Gottesdiener's spokesman. "When current and potential residents tell us what they would like to see downtown, that's the one component that comes up in every conversation."

It's the classic chicken-and-egg scenario with residents and retail. People don't want to live downtown if there are no stores to support their lifestyle, but retailers don't want to open if there are no residents to buy their goods.

So getting the right retail has taken time and has frustrated some city and business leaders who call the progress so far disappointing. There still aren't enough people living downtown. City officials have said that downtown's challenge is its small, but growing, residential base.

"Downtown retail needs a population that extends beyond 6 p.m.," said Mark McGovern, the city's acting director of development services. "You need a daytime and an evening population base, seven days a week."

Patience, says Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, the admittedly impatient developer who built the 36-story, 262-unit apartment tower that opened in September 2006. He is losing $2 million a year in rent, but he doesn't want to sign the wrong retail tenant, or the right one who won't stay open on weekends.

"This is the heart of downtown; it's the triple-A corner," Gottesdiener said recently. " Trumbull is going to become the boulevard in downtown, and we want to get it right."

The grocery store has been a challenge.

Last summer, a deal with Wethersfield-based Bliss Market fell through. So Gottesdiener decided to spend $2 million to build a grocery store himself and find an operator later. The build-out is nearly complete, and he says he didn't skimp. He's in talks with three potential grocery store operators now.

"If we can achieve the market and the wine store, I'll be satisfied for this year," Gottesdiener said recently. "That's important for the residents."

Developer Martin Kenny owns the apartment tower Trumbullon the Park and shares Gottesdiener's hope for the grocery store. He has to.

"It's critical," Kenny said. "When we talk to our tenants, that's the biggest negative about downtown living. People are saying they can't walk to get a bottle of milk or something for a meal at night. I think it keeps people away."

"I think [a grocery store] will help turn the corner to get the rental mix we need to start attracting more people," he said.

Kenny's apartments have been open for two years, and three of his four retail spaces on Trumbull Street are spoken for. One of them will open as a restaurant, Dulce, later this spring, Kenny said.

But, like Gottesdiener, he's had to be patient to get the right tenant the kind of tenant who brings value to his apartment dwellers, as opposed to the lawyer or the shoe shop, he said.

"The last thing we want to do with the retail is have something that's not compelling to the people that live here," Kenny said. "I would prefer to focus on tenants that provide something that's looked upon as an amenity by the people who live in the units. So that's a little harder."

"It's taken a bit, absolutely," Kenny said. "There's not a lot of critical mass of retail here presently."

Coursey, Gottesdiener's spokesman, said that his boss likes talking about his retail space because it gives him a chance to address the skeptics. To them, he said, an open market in 2008 would send a very clear message.

"It will not only provide a much-desired service," Coursey said, "but it will also signal the return of retail that supports everyday living."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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